ST. JOSEPH, MO. -- There's one thing every salivating, game-ready NFL fan wants to know: Who is the quarterback? It's what we always want.
Who will start for the Arizona Cardinals? Kevin Kolb, the high-priced, talented, injury-ridden former member of the Philadelphia Eagles? Or John Skelton, the relative unknown from Fordham University who guided the Cardinals to six of their eight wins last season?
Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt has Kolb and Skelton alternating snaps and depth-chart rankings in practice, and he'll alternate starters in preseason games. Friday night against the Kansas City Chiefs, for instance, it'll be Skelton, though Kolb will play, despite a bruised chest.
But the reality is that quarterback battles don't exist in a vacuum. Everyone is watching, including others fighting for their own roster spots. No decision will be used as a barometer in quite the same way as the one that determines the starting signal-caller. That's why Whisenhunt and the Cardinals are showing wisdom in how they are conducting this competition. The players are noticing.
"Everything is fair," superstar receiver Larry Fitzgerald said Tuesday after a joint practice at the Chiefs' training camp facility. "It's all about competition. It doesn't matter: Whoever the best wide receiver is (is) going to play, whoever the best offensive tackle is (is) going to play, whoever the best strong safety is (is) going to play. It's all about the cream rising to the top. It's a lot of fun playing for a coach that's fair like that. That's going to give players the opportunity to earn the positions and that's the way it should be."
But that just isn't always the way it is.
The NFL preseason landscape is dotted with several other quarterback battles. The Tennessee Titans are following a model similar to that used by the Cardinals, having veteran Matt Hasselbeck and 2011 first-round pick Jake Locker alternate regularly in practice and games. The hope is that Locker, a key to the team's future, starts. But that thought won't hold Hasselbeck back if he gives the Titans a substantially better chance to win this season.
The Seattle Seahawks have a three-headed quarterback monster, with new free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn, last year's starter Tarvaris Jackson and third-round draft pick Russell Wilson on an offensive merry-go-round. Flynn will get the first crack in the preseason as the starter in Saturday night's game against the Titans, but all three will share reps.
Then, there is the situation in Cleveland. First-round draft pick Brandon Weeden has already been anointed the starter by coach Pat Shurmur, which is no surprise. He'd gotten never-ending reps with the first-teamers, while former starter Colt McCoy was left wondering what the heck happened to the competition.
As McCoy told reporters after the announcement was made, he felt like he never had a chance. Shurmur disagreed, saying every rep counted.
Maybe the Browns know Weeden is the answer, so much so that McCoy never deserved a true chance. If Weeden assumes the reins of the franchise and leads it to the glory the fan base is dying for, then all will be well. But history has shown that rarely happens with first-year quarterbacks, even if they are 28 years old.
Instead of fostering a real battle, the Browns rigged the contest, making sure their guy won. Left on the outside was McCoy, whose Browns tenure will be remembered for the game in which he was sent back into action with a concussion, causing his father to question the organization's motivations.
Was that why the race to be the Browns' starter was over before it began? Were Brad McCoy's words that stinging? Is Weeden that much better? Were the Browns simply seeing what they wanted to see in the former Oklahoma State star, who was selected with the 22nd overall pick in April?
Those are all questions without answers right now. But do you want to bet that teammates will be asking them if Weeden struggles while McCoy sits?
Coaches owe it to the players to be openly competitive -- regardless of a player's résumé or past -- if only to provide an honest look at who gives them the best opportunity to win. Are the Browns doing that?
The Cardinals are. That is their goal. As Fitzgerald said, Whisenhunt hopes the cream rises.
"The way we do it, we try to be as fair as we can with whatever position, whatever player we're having competition with," Whisenhunt said. "That means you try to get them equal reps in equal situations. And then you compare it in the end. That's the way we've done it. Is it tough? Yeah, it's tough. Because it's hard to get a feel for the guys that you're going with every snap like you can if you're the starter, but you want it to be tough. You get a chance to see how they handle difficult situations. How do you think it is in the fourth quarter when you're down and you're trying to push your team? It's tough. Very seldom is it like what you expect. And you have to find a way to make that play, and that's what this does, that's what I believe."
Every team is different, every situation is different. But from this vantage point, it looks like the Browns erred in making their QB battle one-sided, while the Cardinals, Titans and Seahawks are offering themselves a better perspective.
This method has worked for Arizona before. Remember 2008? Veteran Kurt Warner was competing with the cool kid on the block, Matt Leinart. Some -- Warner, especially -- wondered if all the talk of a competitive situation matched reality. As in, You're really going to pick the washed-up guy if he's better than the hotshot? Well, yeah. Warner won the job and the Cardinals' season ended with a Super Bowl appearance.
The same people are asking the same questions about the Cardinals today. You're really holding a true competition between an unheralded former Patriot League star and Kolb, who you traded for and spent big money to sign?
Short answer: If Skelton's better, they'll go with him. If not, they'll go with Kolb.
"I think back to 2008, when we had one of these things that summer," Whisenhunt said with a smile, "and that turned out pretty good."
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